Saturday, 25 April 2015

A Disquisition on Time

Augustine went about things the wrong way in dealing with the problem of time but he was only following the way of most men. The tripartite division of time (past, present and future) is a social and individual convenience but any attempt to investigate it more truthfully within those terms is going to fail. Why? Because there is no present that can be a part of consciousness if it can exist at all. Scientists have measured, it would seem, time to 250 billionths of a billionth of a second. There is no reason to believe that this is the end of the matter. Time is already past when the much slower processing power of the human mind has done its job and called it 'the present'.

There is only a functional and useful illusion of present-ness, made up of two processes that relate to one another and which create this illusion of the present where they interface - that which has happened and that which is to happen. It is this interface that is interesting because, constantly moving attosecond by attosecond, it is simply a perceptual set of instant choices between memory and habit on the one hand and modelling and anticipation on the other. This is 'us' - the object of perception that has been created facing events that create the subject perceiving its own past.

This is why all philosophies of 'present-ness' or fixity are absurd and only philosophies of change and adaptation can make sense of what we are. Time can be dealt with conservatively - as an attempt to control the future through fixing events in a pre-set model of the future - or progressively - as a flowing into the future without fixity. Neither approach is wise in itself - one is a noble lie that leads to a sclerosis that cannot cope with new events outside the control of the person while the other is an impossibility, leading to self-destruction based on a lack of respect for the role of experience in managing events. Each type of mind wars on the other because there is no point of agreement.

One must choose one's balance of models for the conquest of time - traditionalist (the day, month and year like every previous unit), social (measured time and socialised time designed to construct collaboration between persons) or creative (following the rhythms of the body and desire in which the modelling mind constructs its time). Sun and moon are 'facts on the ground' (or in the 'ether'), planetary motions can be constructed into a magical socialisation of time and clocks from a scientific one, but, with all due regard to the facts of nature and of culture, the most interesting time is the personal one.

Personal time is a constant coming-to-be as it-ceases-to-be horizon of events - we are vehicles moving in a straight line with no stopping off point except our own extinction. Our most essential clock is the inner one, a clock made up of living tissue, honed by evolution, connected to both the natural and the social but driven by will. Our experience of time is neurological. Our use of time is social. We cannot command the process but we can command our choices - of what things in the past to use for the future (perhaps this is a definition of fearless intelligence in itself) and what things in the future that we wish to attain (the desire).

Intelligence and desire in forward flow are what we are at our best. Philosophies of stasis operate against both desire and intelligence - worse, since the flow is what is, they are the path to a death-in-life, an attempt to reach the goal by stopping the train long before it comes to its final station.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The English Hour with William Morris on ANN TV - Guest Tim Pendry (English with Arabic Subtitles)

The video below was filmed in January 2015 and is now available on YouTube. It was broadcast by the non-State Syrian Channel Arab News Network and the interviewer is William Morris, Secretary-General of the Next Century Foundation in London. It is an extended discussion of religion, politics and culture in Europe and ther United Kingdom in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo event. At the end is a short supplementary discussion on the transition from the British to the American Empire as viewed through a history of the Royal Navy.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Some Flood Legends

The two dominant literary flood myths of the West are those arising from Mesopotamia (and to be found embedded in Jewish, Christian and Islamic mythic history) and those surrounding Atlantis. We say 'myth' but the question is equally and always whether they are 'legends', elaborations of real events. The Akkadian Noah is the immortal Ut-napishtim who appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This story is quite definitely mythic as an attempt to explain the ineluctability of death.

The version of the Great Flood here and in the Bible is also mythic - the Gods (like the Abrahamanic God) decide to destroy mankind and Ea (like the Abrahamanic God) makes one exception by warning him to build a ship. In the Gilgamesh story, the point is made that Ut-napishtim was the first, last and only man ever to be granted immortality by the Gods. The rest of the story demonstrates that 'truth' even as Ut-napishtim advises Gilgamesh how he might possibly gain immortality through the use of a plant deep under the ocean. Naturally, he fails ...

The Atlantis myth needs no elaboration here (to repeat it in all its manifestations would be to become a bore). If we note the probable Cretan or Santorini origin of the myth (if not invented by Plato) and push aside all the modern fantasies and accretions, we may still be left with some credibility for stories of lands sinking just beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. The Celtic zone is part of the same Atlantic seaboard and has a persistent tradition of flood legends that appear largely independent of these main traditions and which appear to relate to actual events that took place on the British Coast.

The myth of the land of Lyonesse is one such. Villages have been lost in historic times on the English East Coast. In addition to Lyonesse (between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly) we have the submerged Breton land of Ys and the lost Green Isle known as a legend along the whole Atlantic seaboard from Iberia to Scotland. These must be distinguished from pseudo-flood legends where the existence of lakes and islands are topographically explained through the heroic digging out of land that has been thrown into the sea - so that the Isle of Man was created out of Lough Neagh and the four Aran Islands out of Finn Mac Cool's creation of Lough Corrib.

A common theme in Celtic legend is of submarine territories that appear occasionally out of the sea (not unknown as volcanic islands). The ready-made cultures on these islands can be ignored as fantasy but exceptional low tides and freak weather conditions can reveal former habitations and the story of submarine countries and towns is probably drawn from these events. These are common enough to have many examples in Ireland - Hy Brasil, Tir na hOige, Mainstir Leitreach, Beag-Arainn - but the best examples are Welsh and Cornish. Some are more apocryphal than others - the sunken city under Llyn Syfaddon (Llangors Lake) is too like the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah to be credibly non-derivative. Another lies under Bala Lake.

The cause of such laken cities is always sinful living and drowning is a vengeance. The most interesting is that of the prosperous Kingdom, ruled by Gwyddno Garanhir, Cantre'r Gwaelod, now drowned under Cardigan Bay and very possibly a folk memory of the loss of some neolithic agricultural settlements by the encroaching Irish Sea. As always the tale is moralistic. The Prince is given to pleasures of a decidedly pagan nature and so he and his land are punished for his and his people's sins because of their neglect of their duty to the sea defences.

And as so often (the Suffolk case of Dunwich springs to mind), it is claimed that, even today, the bells of the town can be heard as the remains of its walls may be seen. The stories are moral exemplars from the Christian era but it does seem likely that they may represent the destruction of real communities living on vulnerable land and destroyed by sea encroachments - whether tidal, tsunami or from local earthquake - but it is unlikely that these encroachments were Atlantean in scale or too far distant in the past.

Perhaps the only other major flood tradition (though there are others) is that of the Tamils who have a flood myth connected to the two 'lost' cities of Tenmaturai (possibly Maturai as it was before a major flood: Maturai exists today as a temple centre) and Kapatapuram, of which the earliest source is ninth century. In both cases, they were destroyed by 'sea-floods' - presumably tsunami - and the later discovery of the remains of temple architecture during the sea recession of the last great tsunami indicates this to be a probability. So we have at least four great traditions - the Mesopotamian which may have affected the reading of the Celtic through Christian exemplars but which latter may also reflect sea encroachments around the British Isles, the Atlantaean which probably derives from Santorini and the Tamil derived from early medieval tsunami.

Legend and Contemporary Politics

[This is a much revised version of a piece first published in March 2012 in Eyeless Owl]

Politics over the last hundred years has been relatively resistant to mythic or legendary considerations. Legend can be used tactically for propaganda in a crisis or it can enter into the perceived history of a nation out of laziness, ignorance or manipulative deliberation. Yet, despite the influence of legend on nineteenth century romantic nationalism, most modern politicians most of the time like to avoid appeals to irrationalism. A distinction between mythic and legendary narratives allows us to place to one side in this posting faith-based political ideology - notably that of the Shi'a but also the now much reduced, except in the backwoods of America, biblical fundamentalist narratives about race and providence.

A legend is something based not on the will of God or God's intervention in the world but on re-interpreting what men have actually done. It also has to stand a certain reasonable time. The attempt at promoting the legends of JFK and Camelot and of Churchill's wartime record eventually fall into the hands of historians and soon cease to drive political decision-making - or, at least, they are eventually restricted to the mobilisation of factions or parties rather than whole communities. They start to die with the generations involved. The classical legends of Greece and Rome may be embedded deep within Western culture and are often used rhetorically but they cannot reasonably be said to be at the heart of modern Western political theory or practice. The exploits of Theseus and Heracles or of Horatio at the Bridge have ceased even being imperial exemplars.

The Modern World and 'Noble Lies'

The modern world might be regarded as rational with irrational characteristics whereas legends are 'noble lies', redrafts of history to instill exemplary values for largely conservative purposes. The remnants of legendism in the last century are intriguing for signs of where irrationalism may re-emerge as the basis for a trans-valuation of values in politics. We might draw a distinction between cultures where an otherwise long-since dead culture lives in the minds and values of the population and those where an event in the recent past has the potential to be recast in legendary terms.

We could also note that legend becomes distanced from politics with lessening vulnerability. Romantic nationalism owes a great deal to legends and romantic nationalism tends to appear strongest when a nation is submerged within an empire or under direct and immediate threat. Otherwise, quotidien money-making shifts legend quite quickly to the entertainment sector. This is why the most ambivalent attitudes to legend lie in nations that once relied on legend for their sense of continued existence but which now have developed into relatively wealthy late capitalist economies where legend has become the staple of the tourist and arts industries. Feeling Beowulf as part of one's identity is different to watching Ray Winstone strut his stuff in a movie.

Israel and Its Shadow

Perhaps the oddest example may be Jewish culture which has found legendism to cut both ways. The 'blood libel' guilt is no longer present in our culture but the awareness of it has created a sort of contra-legend about the ‘normality’ of anti-semitism. The legend that the founder of the Rothschild dynasty was given an inexhaustible barrel of oil by Elijah for a good deed in the eighteenth century might be seen as fraught with worrying potential in the current climate. Legendism has a long history in Jewish culture from biblical through rabbinical and hasidic cultures to modern Zionism. The living construction of legends in modern Israel and in the diaspora for contemporary purposes (no doubt mimicked in the Arab world) is a live political issue.

Its deepest and darkest enemy, national-socialism in Germany, was highly mythologised and, like Jewish culture, interested in adopting legend for nationalist purposes. This partly mythic, partly occult culture descended into bloody mayhem under such conditions that it seems unlikely that it will ever recover its political importance. Nevertheless, the Nazi mythos has to be noted as a continued inspiration for the marginalised Radical Right across the West and beyond. Its modern absurdities have moved on from Wotanism and from myths of an Aryan Atlantis to contemporary stories surrounding the origin UFOs. The legendary aspects started with the rewriting of history by strange outsiders like the Greek-French pseudo-Aryan Savitri Devi and have continued with tales of the escape of Nazis to Latin America.

Declining Western States

Three 'cases' to watch might be Eire as its 'Celtic Tiger' dream implodes, Spain - and Japan as its economic status begins to sink relative (though only relative) to that of China. A fourth may be (strangely) the most advanced of all - the US as it comes to terms with its own equally relative decline. Yet, Ireland saw no return to romantic nationalism under economic pressure - on the contrary Sinn Fein has 'degenerated' into another pragmatic fixer trying to get the best financial deal out of Dublin and London.

Traditional legends were still being created about Eamonn de Valera within the last hundred years but it seems unthinkable that such thinking can be recreated now, except that there remains a residual belief in the power of the land, national destiny and spirits that might be re-encoded into politics under extreme pressure in both Eire and Cymru - and perhaps Scotland. In the Irish case, the discrediting of the Catholic Church, as wave after wave of scandals related to past abuse of the vulnerable, leaves a cultural vaccuum that is being filled with European liberalism and not the return to traditional values.

Spain is interesting because the Legend of El Cid was played to great political effect by both the republicans and nationalists in the Civil War. Franco not only built an imposing new tomb for the legendary hero in Burgos Cathedral but organised national celebrations in 1943 both for the 900th anniversary of his birth and 1,000 years of Castilian independence. At the moment. Spain is very troubled but the corrupt old Right is not playing the legendary nationalist card but embedding itself deeper into Europe.

In Japan, the cult of the samurai, much of it quite recent in origin but with more ancient legendary roots, maintains a powerful role in modern Japanese history, reaching its post war epitome in Yukio Mishima's attempted coup in the 1960s, but this too has diverted itself into manga and anime and thence into the global games industry. Mishima himself is seen rightly by the Japanese as closer to the Western decadent tradition than as exemplar of traditional values. The modernisation of the Meiji period has allowed a persistent interest in ancient heroes but they do not drive an essentially pragmatic politics.


The fourth case, the United States, brings us to a theme that is more germane to outlier and semi-developed cultures - banditry. Much of American legend is now made redundant out of regard for the American Indian (General Custer) or because an age of resource exploitation (Paul Bunyan) has passed. But the country of Jesse James and a tradition of murderous robbery from the American Civil War through to Dillinger have also created the standard 'Robin Hood' myth that we see in all frontier societies. But while the frontier has closed, the legend could yet have lived on against presumed rapacious bankers but it did not - protest remained law-abiding.

In the Balkans and the Turkic area, bandits and outlaws can still be politically relevant. The myth of the bandit became inspirational in the partisan ballads of the last century in Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria (and elsewhere) while Kuroghli is the Turkic Robin Hood, a romantic, noble and generous rebel, challenging all authority. Kuroghli, a seventeenth century brigand, remains a 'living' legend, protector of the poor and enemy of the rich, perhaps available as an Islamist iconic figure, given the claims that he has the special protection of the Islamic pre-Mohammedan culture hero of Khidr or that he is the reincarnation of the significant Shia figure Ali, son-in-law to the Prophet.

The Caucasus

There are two nations (Armenia and Georgia) and many ethnic groups in the Caucasus with a strong sense of their own heroic past, mostly of resistance to authority derived from larger powers. This has expressed itself both as legends of banditry in the pre-revolutionary Soviet cause and as anti-Soviet risings after the Revolution. In Armenia, the saga of King Arshak II has been central to the story of struggle for freedom. It was a factor in the exile and death of the poet Osip Mandelstam in 1938 after he published a symbolic treatment in which the oppressor King Shapur was too easily seen as Josef Stalin, an association implied more than once in his poetry.

Stalin was a Georgian but the nationalist poet whose work he admired, Mikheil Javakhishvili, nevertheless died at the hands of the NKVD despite Stalin's appreciation of his novel about the romantic legendary early nineteenth century bandit Arsena. On the other side of the coin, perhaps fortunate to die in Tiflis in an accident in 1921 before Stalin started cleaning up behind him, was the revolutionary bandit Kamo (Ter Petrossian) who raised funds for Lenin in much the same way and not long after Stalin was doing the same in Georgia - through organised crime as a bank robber.

The link between past American resentments of bankers and our Caucasian revolutionaries is simply that crime becomes a political issue where the population no longer trust the State and where warlordism becomes an alternative to democracy. The alleged individualism and manliness of the cowboy offers another legendary model for libertarian resistance. It may seem extreme to suggest that the US is at risk from such a scenario but its legends of approval for free-booting criminals, maintained through its popular culture, show that the extension of the current chaos in Northern Mexico into the South West of the United States may well rely on a 'legendary attitude' hidden within American values. As we have noted, this did not result in rediscovery of Hobsbawm's 'social bandit' in the post-2008 economic crisis so we must conclude that the American people basically trust their system and prefer it to the rule, even theoretical, of warlords.

Asian and African Models

In Iran, the Shahname or 'The Book of Kings' remains a live legendary text for many Iranians who oppose the dominance of the Shia theocracy. This is not an immediate issue but, as we saw in the Arab Spring, it is not to be assumed that democratic liberals will be the beneficiaries of revolutionary changes.

A cult of Genghiz Khan was tolerated and even supported in Chinese Inner Mongolia to placate Mongol nationalism. A cult centre with battle standards was permitted on the steppes. But the old pro-Soviet Mongolian People's Republic took the opposite view, terming Genghiz Khan as a destructive tyrant (somewhat cheeky given the dominance of Stalin) and sought to suppress his cult at every opportunity.

In Africa, both the Zulus and the Afrikaners, who might yet combine politically in mutual defence against the poor and black urban majority, share opposite sides of the same historic event that has achieved legendary status to both peoples - the Battle of Blood River (1838) when General Pretorius defeated Dinganam, heir to Chaka's Zulu Empire.

The Americas and Pacific

We noted above the risks of warlord chaos spilling over into the South West of US and the drugs community is one of the few zones where legendary figures and tropes are being created in the contemporary world (outside the capitalist-financed media). This directs our attention to Mexico and other parts of Middle America where Indian resistance has always had a legendary aspect, ranging from 'Aztec nationalism' through the legendary appropriation of European themes (the Virgin of Gaudelupe) to support legends of victory over and resistance to predatory tribes backed by the invaders. Lower register forms of Aztlan nationalism extend into Chicano territory within South West Mexico and there are some reports of it appearing within the ranks of the crime lords whose bloodthirstiness may be seen within a longer traditionalist framework of hatred towards the gringos - and may yet be turned on the gringos more directly.

Finally, a very different sort of legend, the cargo cult, offers a form of resistance through emulation and manipulation in the Pacific that may well throw up the odd cult leader but the type hero of both the Aborigines and working-class whites remains - yes, you guessed it - the bandit. White Australians have a slew of legends of courageous legendary resistance to authority encompassing Ned Kelly, the Eureka Stockade and the historical events surrounding Gallipoli but it is the aborigines who can call on genuinely ambiguous criminals who were also cast as freedom fighters, men such as Tucklar, Yagan and Pigeon. It may be that Australia represents the last country in the world whose entire political culture is built on the sustained triumph of legend over historical reality. It may only be the undoubted dominance of the incomers over the indigenes that ensures that it is does not become a brutal clash of banditries.

Lost Leaders

The disappearance of Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the anti-imperialist Indian National Army is an unresolved issue. He boarded a Japanese plane for an unknown destination and was never seen again. (The analogy with the disappearance of various Nazi leaders is noted, notably Hitler himself). The story of Bose suggests the many lost leaders who have disappeared. Many of them are still believed (not by modern men but as mythic ideas) to be ready to return when a nation is troubled. Their spirit may be seen as recoverable on the traditionalist Right. Amongst these are King Arthur, Charlemagne, Owen Glendwyr, Robert the Bruce, Frederick Barbarossa, Siegfried, Sir Francis Drake, King Sebastian of Portugal and Tsar Alexander I. The Romanov blood line was once believed to have survived in at least the genes of Princess Anastasia.

There are also the tales of the flying Dutchman and of the wandering Jew - who was seen in Salt Lake City in 1868, in Glamorgan in the early last century and said to have been a New York stockbroker in the 1940s. Not politically important perhaps but implying mysteries that continue to fascinate the media, the public and the internet.

Concluding Thoughts

Nor should we forget the magicians - there may be Rasputins yet to come at the courts of declining dictators and dynasts ... nor the Freemasons. Some like to cast Alexandre Dugin in that role at the court of Putin - Peter Mandelson developed a sinister (and probably unfair) 'legendary' role as Prince of Darkness within the Labour Party. We have not even touched the surface of legends of secret societies, Illuminati and other groupings seen as either agent of light or sinister manipulators in the contemporary legends of men under stress.

All in all, legendary tales and their role as irrationalism in politics may not have disappeared quite so much as we may believe even if we see little sign of active political importance. A 'legendary attitude' (acceptance of crime lords or a call for the spirit of lost leaders) may reappear and some nations may still be susceptible under pressure. Any real resurgence of traditionalist irrationalism is unlikely, partly because the world is interconnected enough that no leader of such a revolt can be wholly isolated from reality or get away with excessive departure from the facts - faith-based mythic irrationalism is a far greater danger. Note how Subcomandante Marcos, consciously created as a mythic figure to support the aspirations of the Mexican peasantry, is now seen as precisely what he was - a hyper real contemporary creation - rather than a creation of the 'volk'.  But the phenomenon shows us that a legend-based mobilisation of a population, handled with skill by an ambitious politician, prepared to develop an educated post-modern appropriation of its imagery, is still more than possible under conditions of extreme stress.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Frontiers 1 - The Exploration of Space

[This is the first in a series of postings that looks at the frontiers of the human condition - space, time, reality - and follows on from our very different Tantra series. The postings are non-specialist so factual corrections are welcomed in comments]

The exploration of space is conducted by unmanned robotic probes and human spaceflight as well as through astronomical means (which we will not be dealing with here). The usual reasons for undertaking all this are scientific curiosity, usually presented, with some justification, as a universal aspect of human nature.  Apart from questions about our environment, this includes our curious interest in some questions about ourselves, not only in terms of the origins of life but more practical questions about the survival of our species as well as philosophical questions about our meaning, if we have any, in a huge material universe.

Our footprint in space is very recent (a matter of around half a century) and very small-scale. The longest human occupation of space is represented by the International Space Station, in continuous use for well over 14 years. Valeri Polyakov made a record single spaceflight of almost 438 days aboard the Mir space station. Long-term stays in space have revealed issues with bone and muscle loss in low gravity, immune system suppression and radiation exposure. As for whether other life exists which would impact on our own sense of uniqueness as an evolved species, some of the main locations for future astrobiological investigation are on Enceladus, Europa, Mars, and Titan. All these locations require at least some form of lander to ask any serious questions about extra-terrestrial life.

We can perhaps take as special pleading spin-off effects (though these exist), the value to earthlings of asteroid or moon-mining (since this material is largely for use off-world in a circular argument about value) and its inspirational aspects educationally since they all rather beg the question of whether a space programme necessarily is the best means of achieving any of the proposed ends. There may also be some fluffy stuff about human political universality that sometimes masks national strategic advantage or special interest lobbying but, lately, special interests have taken to trying to persuade funding bodies (basically, this involves the transfer of funds from the general economy, including current welfare and economic and social investment) to part with cash on the basis of some future existential risk from space – either as direct defensive manoeuvres or in terms of the scientific understanding necessary to avert or survive them in the longer term. Existential risk is not seriously presented as one of aliens in saucers but mostly as a matter of asteroids or other celestial events. These are legitimate concerns though there is some potential over-promising involved as to what may be possible in terms of protection. 

Another line of persuasion likes to suggest that because (allegedly) we humans are going to destroy our own planet, then we must find others to settle in order to survive, begging the question of what it actually means to individuals in having the species survive on such terms. This approach tends to ignore the rather brute facts of vast distances and the effects of radiation and non-earth conditions on biology as well as the expense of such projects (which would be geared almost certainly to the survival of the relative few over the masses stuck on earth). As we will see, the prospects of travelling beyond the solar system to find habitable exo-planets is extremely distant– the effort simply to reach near moons and Mars may take decades yet.

The claims of non-asteroid-related earthly destruction are as likely to be apocalyptic hogwash created by various ideological or scientific lobby groups as genuinely evidence-based worries but the interest in expanding human presence is undoubtedly a primal drive of the species and should not be underestimated or dismissed. Perhaps it is just the tortuous attempts to give rhetorical justification for the acquisitive and expansionary urges of humanity that we should regard with cynicism. However, what we undoubtedly see at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a marked increase in human and robotic space exploration.

After The Cold War

The US human space programme is still a little unclear as to final strategy in an age of economic austerity (though a programme of work exists as a result of the NASA Authorization Act 2010) but the old Soviet programme died with the collapse of the Soviet model. The current trend has been for programmes to be preferred that are relatively cost-effective (making use of robotics more than humans to expand horizons) and focused on scientific discovery within the solar system. Major scientific projects also tend to be spread among many more nations, either directly collaborative or as independent operations that have some element of co-ordination. The more deliberately scientific and robotic and the less human or existential, the more likely that collaboration will be involved though this may change if the feasibility and costs of asteroid management increase.

The current general effect is to create a more diffuse understanding of immediate surroundings in space and to develop basic skills for the future rather than expand immediately the species territory (indeed, the withdrawal from the moon had indicated a reduction in such ambitions in the recent past).Although there are plans to return to the Moon and explore Mars, more distant threats and opportunities (such as exo-planets and new interstellar drives) are left to astronomical science and even cosmology and particle physics. Efforts have largely been concentrated on what is near to hand for very practical reasons. 

However, an era of relative pause seems to be coming slowly to an end before a secondary leap forward based on the possibilities of dealing with material threats, on the assumed resolution of earthly economic difficulties and on that hoary old competition for advantage between States. The legal framework for space exploration is set by the Outer Space Treaty which has been ratified by all current spacefaring nations (as of 2012).

US Strategy

Boeing X-37B
NASA’s Space Shuttle programme no longer counts as space exploration if ever it did. It formally ended at the end of August 2011 in any case. The tasks performed by the Shuttle are now done by many different craft either currently flying or in advanced development and should really be considered logistics for existing capability.  

Secret military missions are understood to flown by the US Air Force unmanned mini-space plane [X-37B]. Cargo supplies to the International Space Station are flown by privately owned commercial craft under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services using Orbital Sciences' Cygnus spacecraft. Crew service to the ISS is flown exclusively by the Russian Soyuz while NASA works on its Commercial Crew Development Program.

The International Space Station is a joint project of NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA with ownership and use of the space station established by intergovernmental treaties and agreements. The station is divided into two sections, the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the United States Orbital Segment (USOS). 

The American portion is funded until at least 2024 while Roskosmos has endorsed the continued operation of ISS through to the same date but has proposed using elements of the ROS to construct a new Russian space station called OPSEK. It was understood that Roscosmos and NASA had agreed to collaborate on the development of a replacement for the current ISS but this has yet to be confirmed by the US and it may fall victim to recent political difficulties between the two nations.

The Bush Administration Constellation Program (for a return to the Moon by 2020) was judged inadequately funded and unrealistic by an expert review panel reporting in 2009.  The Obama Administration then proposed a revision (NASA Authorization Act 2010) to a) focus on the development of the capability for crewed missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), b) extend the operation of the ISS beyond 2020 (and now agreed), c) transfer the development of launch vehicles for human crews from NASA to the private sector (see above), and d) develop technology to enable missions such as Earth to the Moon, on the Moon, from the Earth to the near-Sun, to investigate the near-earth asteroids, and to take craft into Phobos or Mars orbit (clearly with the aim of landing on Mars).

Orion Spacecraft

For missions beyond Low Earth Orbit, NASA is building the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft.  The Space Launch System (SLS) is designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, with important cargo, equipment, and science experiments to Earth's orbit and destinations beyond.  It will serve as a back-up for commercial and international partner transportation services to the International Space Station, incorporating the technology of the Space Shuttle program and Constellation programmes. The first developmental flight is targeted for end-2017

Other National Efforts

Roskosmos, the Russian Space Agency, meanwhile, is still dealing with the after effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The current intention appears to be full re-nationalisation and a return to active programmes, including (in principle) a return to the Moon. There is a major overhaul of the Agency being undertaken to deal with recent serious failures in the proton-M programme and inherent inefficiencies. These involve a concentration of talent. Layoffs and productivity improvements are planned. For commercial and political reasons, one may reasonably expect a Russian return to the sector within the next decade or so. If so, there may be a competitive interest emerging from the US if and once it is clear that the Russians can, in fact, create a more efficient and cost-effective state run capability. 

The Ukrainian Space Agency, the other heir to the old Soviet capability, was always going to be an adjunct of Roskosmos as the industrial supplier to Russian capability which has the main launch capacity. Its future must reasonably be in doubt or (at least) limited until recent political and economic difficulties have been resolved. The best talent may be attracted across to the new improved Roskosmos. Chinese plans include a permanent 60-ton multi-modulspace station by 2020 and crewed expeditions to the Moon and Mars. The European Union is apparently considering manned missions to the moon and to Mars within the coming century but faces economic and organisational issues no less difficult than those of Russia. It is highly active in robotic scientific missions beyond Mars. Japan, and India also plan future manned space missions to the Moon. 

In other words, though relatively cash strapped and with no really firm strategic plans yet fully funded, the two strategic powers of the Cold war, the two most populous rising nations and the more advanced non-US elements of the West (European Union and Japan) all have a manned journey to the Moon and possibly Mars on their medium-term agenda. In addition some private sector interests (largely US) are promoting space tourism (not strictly space exploration) and private space exploration of the Moon.

Between Earth and The Sun

From an unmanned scientific perspective, there is continued interest in the Sun because of its environmental effects. 

BepiColombo en route to Mercury
The third mission to Mercury [BepiColombo] is scheduled to arrive in 2020 and includes two probes. It is a joint mission between Japan and the European Space Agency. MESSENGER (already in orbit around Mercury) and BepiColombo will gather complementary data to help further understanding of the findings of the first flyby mission, Mariner 10 (1973). 

Venus had a great deal of attention from the old Soviet space research programme but does not seem to be a current priority for major investment although there is an Indian Venus Orbiter Mission planned for this year and a Russian brief lander and weather balloon operation targeted for 2024. 

Manned Landing Targets

The Moon remains of interest for robotic missions but the key future event (assuming that none of the other planned human interventions come to fruition before this date) is NASA’s Exploration Mission 2 or EM-2, the first crewed mission of NASA's Orion on the Space Launch System. In 2006 NASA announced they were planning to build a permanent Moon base with continual presence by 2024 which ties in with the date for guaranteed funding for the ISS. The ultimate mission is to restart manned exploration of the Solar System from this base line. In 2021, a crew will undertake a practice flyby of a captured asteroid in lunar orbit (see later) and this will be the first time humans will have left Low Earth Orbit since Apollo 17 [December 1972]. If someone else does not get there first and all goes well, this will be a major psychological boost for US scientific leadership and give the US a new lead in manned solar exploration with the obvious next target being Mars and the physical exploration of the Moon itself. 

Phobos in relation to Mars
Mars is the main target in terms of matching the past cultural impact of the Moon landings. The planet has been the subject of many robotic missions but with a very high failure rate and at huge cost. Around two-thirds of all spacecraft fail before completing their missions. There is talk of a Great Galactic Ghoul which eats Mars probes. India, however, has become the first country to achieve success at its first attempt. Its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was also one of the least expensive interplanetary missions ever undertaken with an approximate total cost of US$73 million. A Russian orbiter space mission failed to reach Phobos (2011) which is regarded as a possible ‘transhipment’ point for spaceships travelling to Mars. However, lessons being learned, it is only a matter of time before some attempt is made to land human beings on the planet whether via Phobos or not.

Between Mars and Uranus

Beyond Mars, we are not only into purely robotic missions but the very idea of manned missions are meaningless until the problems presented by the Phobos-Mars system are resolved. Missions beyond Mars are currently related solely to scientific investigation or the long term management of possible existential risk (related to asteroid threats or ‘space weather’). The Galileo orbiter was the most significant scientific mission (1995-2003) in dealing with Jupiter – the planet would probably though not certainly be impossible to land on although it has around 60 known moons. NASA’s future probes include Juno spacecraft, launched in 2011, which will enter a polar orbit around Jupiter to see if it has a rocky core which theoretically (although it is unlikely to be practical) might allow a human to land on its surface. The European Space Agency selected the L1-class JUICE mission in 2012 as part of its Cosmic Vision programme to explore three of Jupiter's Galilean moons, with a possible Ganymede lander provided by Roscosmos. JUICE is proposed to be launched in 2022. 

Saturn is still being orbited by the Cassini-Huyghens Orbiter (2004) and providing data long after its expected ending date. The Huygens probe successfully landed on Titan (2004/2005), the only moon (other than Earth's own Moon) to be successfully explored with a lander. This operation was a joint US-European-Italian project.
Cassini-Huyghens in orbit around Saturn

The success of Cassini-Huyghens has resulted in proposals for another major US-European mission with preference given to a 2020 in-depth exploration of Jupiter's moons with a focus on Europa, Ganymede and Jupiter's magnetosphere [Europa Jupiter System Mission – Laplace). There are other proposed US and European missions. Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons should be regarded as of joint significance in this context. Whether significant Russian or Asian involvement will be part of these Missions is a political but also a capability issue which will be resolved in the coming decade. 

Beyond Uranus

If Mars represents the realistic next limit of human exploration (with theoretical plans for Jupiter and its moons), Jupiter and Saturn’s moons and their mother planets are where most of the scientific robotic investment is taking place. From this point on, we are almost certainly speaking of unmanned probes this century. The exploration of Uranus, for example, has only been via the Voyager 2 spacecraft (1986). No other visits are currently planned. There are proposals but nothing approved.  

Voyager 2 also flew by Neptune (1989) but the planet has not even had an orbiter yet and it is not seriously a current candidate for significant expenditure. It is probably no accident that a lack of interest appeared just as the old Soviet system collapsed and the incentive for high expenditures in space began to evaporate. 

The controllers of Voyager 1 had preferred to fly by Titan than head for Pluto (now regarded as a dwarf planet) while Voyager 2’s trajectory was nowhere near it. However, Pluto is of great scientific interest. We currently have the excitement of a mission arriving (closest approach) on July 14th this year. New Horizons got US funding in 2003 and 2006. Scientific observations of Pluto will already have begun around January and they will continue well into August. It also happens to be the fastest spaceship ever launched at 36,000 mph.

Existential Threat - Asteroids

Asteroids are of great interest because of their ultimate existential threat to the species. Several asteroids have been visited by probe since 1991. The first unmanned landing on an asteroid was that of the NEAR Shoemaker probe in 2000 after an orbital survey. NASA’s Dawn Mission (launched in 2007) is targeting the dwarf planet Ceres and the Asteroid 4 Vesta (two of the three largest asteroids). The first colour map of Ceres was released while we were drafting this Note (April 13th, 2015).

The Dawn Mission
A number of missions by a different space agencies are either under way or are planned but perhaps the most interesting planned scientific project is by NASA - a mission to capture a near-Earth asteroid and move it into lunar orbit where it could possibly be visited by astronauts and later impacted into the Moon. Last year, NASA suggested that Asteroid 2011 MD, very close to the Earth but not deemed to be a major threat, was the best candidate for capture as soon as the early 2020s. The existential interest in such technology is fairly obvious but there is also interest in space mining for materials that would permit construction in space. There have also been comet landings and investigations but these are relatively rare events and we know of none planned since the successful Philae landing that transmitted for ten years after 2004 (which may transmit again if solar power is restored) and two subsequent fly-bys in 2005.

Beyond the Solar System and Summary

Voyager 1
The furthest deep space probe is Voyager 1. This reached the edge of the solar system in December 2011 and entered interstellar space in August 2013. Space engine technology effectively limits further unmanned space exploration to the solar system until new propulsion systems are designed. Anything beyond the solar system is currently the province of astronomy. Within the solar system, unmanned robotic probes can, in theory, reach anything but are still expensive and need to be highly focused on outcomes. 

There is much to learn but the costs for earth-based powers (the only ones we know of) suggest that most activity will be related to four central ‘war aims’:
  • the understanding of space weather (centred on the Sun);
  • support for manned missions ultimately targeting Mars and the moons around the large planets  Jupiter and Saturn;
  • asteroid risk management and the potential for mining for deep space use; and,
  • further scientific investigation of the frontier between Mars and Uranus in the first instance and beyond Uranus only in the second. 
The main strategic development is the potential development of autonomous artificial intelligence that can be applied to unmanned missions, especially into deep space, and support for manned missions. Human activity in some senses requires a degree of ‘relearning’ although there is now an experienced body of astronauts and their non-US equivalents and travel technology is well established, though not without risk. Both long distance travel (with its unknown biological effects) and landings on the Moon, Mars and moons of other planets (including Phobos) require some a return to old skills (the Apollo Missions) and new ones, including very extended periods in cell-like conditions where (in the early cases) there may be a one way trip involved and nothing at the other end except the broadcasting of discoveries before extinction. 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

For and Against Situationist Thought

Situationist thought might seem like a mere historical foot-note from Cold War history but it is worth some reconsideration now that we have seen ‘capitalism’ go through one of its periodic bouts of creative destruction. It depended intellectually on yet another attempt by mid-twentieth century Marxists to weasel out of the tough fact that their Idealist origins meant that they could never actually relate to the human condition as most people lived it – life for Marxists is an expression of theory. On the other hand, shorn of its ridiculous and patronising Marxist rhetoric, it has been 'detourned' into every avenue of commercial art, that is where it has not become the hobby of marginalised contemporary anarchists operating on the fringe of political reality - and sometimes of reality itself.

Where Situationist Thought Sits

Yet it would be foolish to under-estimate its importance. Although derived from an untenable Hegelianism, still being played out by the buffoons in the European Commission, it had one big thing to offer. What the situationists wanted to do was to make individuals, especially individuals at the very base of society, critically observe and analyse their daily conditions of life, calculate their own intrinsic desires and act on them.

Forget the Young Hegelian padding, this was potentially pre-Socratic in form, a half-way house to a proper existentialist political ethic. Perhaps they needed to claw their way out of the very ideology in which they had set themselves and just failed and perhaps we should honour them simply for trying. Their contribution to Western culture is precisely to expose the impossibility of one’s own desire being encompassed by any theory.

Debord recognized this to a degree by opposing any attempt to turn the situationist impulse into 'situationism', an ideology. Unfortunately, he failed to escape the dominant intellectual ideology of his time. One can imagine a group of Christian radicals (anti-trinitarians perhaps) playing with similar ideas, yet getting trapped into a necessary but ultimately fruitless faith in God.

The Situationist and the Left

Debord understood Sartre’s insight into one aspect of our condition – that the will to the universal, embedded in ‘official’ left-wing thought, is deeply absurd. He saw ideology as legitimated in modern society ‘by universal abstraction and by the effective dictatorship of illusion’. What the Situationists expressed was a peculiar form of revolt that has resonance today. Within the Left, it was a revolt against the bureaucratic impulse of contemporary socialism and the repulsive dictatorship of Stalin’s nomenlatura. That particular argument was won in any case by history. From the Left, however, it was a revolt at the process of having one’s reality, desires and needs dictated by machineries that were no less bureaucratic than those of sclerotic communism but which were hidden within the operations of capitalism.

Later, the great left-wing weasel himself, Gramsci, managed to perform a trick whereby the official Left simply abandoned overt bureaucratism and adopted the manipulative techniques of capitalist enterprises for social engineering purposes. The Situationist impulse is thus important because the problems they identified have not gone away but have merely transformed themselves. Mow, the manipulation of reality comes not only from advertising agencies but from liberal-left infiltration of our culture.

Anti-Capitalism and Neo-Bureaucratic Socialism

What we have now is a culture of self-righteous and manipulative activists, all talking their book and using their minority power to force universalist regulation and legislation on a powerless population. From a Cold War situation of communist bureaucratic tyranny and ‘free world’ corporate drabness, we have transformed into a world of government by liberal-left elites amidst an economic chaos which they are incapable of managing.

The Situationist International was anti-capitalist (whatever that can mean today) but their revolutionary impulse embraced what they saw as the positive elements within capitalist development. Despite the bleatings of Marxist-Leninists, there are positive aspects. Capitalism, by lurches and starts, eventually provides for needs and desires far better than any other system, better than political traditionalism and provenly better than communism.

At a certain level of development, people began to have the opportunity for personal choice. This was certainly not the case in the industrial factory culture of mid-twentieth century France and it is not the case across most of the world for most of the time but, where the market (let us drop the loaded term capitalism) operates well, persons do have more choices although this does not mean that the choices are the ones we always want ... better is not to be taken here to mean good, just not-so-bad.

Puritan Reactions

There is a current attempt at a back-lash against choice from the sourer elements of the liberal-left but this neo-puritanism, which can descend to complaints about the complexity of mobile phone tariffs in a world of stupid and lazy people, deliberately ignores that late capitalism gives us other more critical choices of real value.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century in the developed west, we have been given remarkable choices over our sexual identity, who we associate with, where and how we live, what we take into our bodies and what we can say (despite liberal-left attempts to control this last). These freedoms derive entirely from our relative prosperity and so from late capitalism. The tragedy of the current economic crisis is that many people have not found a way to extend their freedoms independent of prosperity and regardless of the cynical interest of the ‘capitalists’.

This is where the situationist impulse comes in because the situationists were ahead of their time by half a century in asserting the primacy of the ordinary person’s ability to assert his or her right to choose his or her condition of life according to his or her desires - against centuries of social control. What we can continue to do is bring desire as a reality to the forefront of the population’s minds so that these desires can be recognized as good in themselves and, if transgressive against some dictated norm, inspirational towards changing the norm itself.


Instead of the liberal-left activist transforming a norm to meet abstract universalist principles over the heads of the population, the population might be liberated to assess its own condition and then demand that ‘norms’ be transformed away from the universal and back to the particular. What they can also do is what Sanguinetti and Debord did in their hoax pamphlet of 1975 where they ‘tricked’ major figures into showing their true thoughts and feelings on the murderous fascist interventions in Italy at that time.

This was unforgivable to elites – Sanguinetti had to flee Italy and was denied entry to France. Yet all he had done was to get the elite to show its true sentiments to the ruled. This should have been the task of journalism but journalists were and are fully embedded in the elite. As we have seen in the outpourings of garbage over the Ukrainian and Greater Syrian situations, the 'free Press' is little more than the 'father of lies' (on all sides).

Marxism & Value

Let us turn to what is wrong with Situationist Thought. Almost everything that is wrong with it can be put down to its Marxist origins and its easy acceptance of Marx’s labour theory of value. Everything in Marxism depends on this theory – and on its elaborations such as commodification, reification and alienation – so that any theory that did not accept it could not be called Marxist. The Situationists had to see themselves as Marxist if they were to be credibly ‘of the Left’.

In fact, value is not created by work but by perception, in a very different way from Marx’s simple view of all production being simply economic and ‘scientific’. How we perceive value arises from considerations that relate to our desires as much as our needs. The Marxist impulse is not merely to diminish these desires but to start creating concepts such as 'false consciousness' that will be the basis of the totalitarian manipulation of desire. Above all, the Marxist will not investigate and respect (and socialise) the animal core of desire and the 'divine' aspiration within it. While not going so far, the Situationists made the revolutionary step of interpreting Marxist theory in terms of experience and perception but laid claim to this being a stage in capitalism, ‘advanced’ capitalism.

Today, the capitalist seeks out and enables a creativity which would not be expressed at all if it was not for the capitalist who permits both efficient and wasteful organisation of resources. The Situationists, however, were hobbled by their need to fit in with ‘progressive’ historicism. Their profound insight was vitiated by the fact that they failed to understand that all value is based on experience and desire once very basic needs are met and that even those needs are contingent on experience and desire. In short, experience and desire (if only to continue living) are far more intrinsic to value than some gobbledy-gook that inserts the capitalist between the worker and his product. Even the form of basic needs can be dictated by perceptions and experience as in those situations where markets are perverted by taboo.

The Age of Spectacle

The Situationists assumed that we lived in an age of Spectacle that was different from all other ages. The latest adaptation of this is the current interest in the hyper-real, best exemplified by the work of Baudrillard. But they were entrapped within Marxist historical thought here as well. In fact, all ages are ages of spectacle and of simulacra because that is the central fact of the human condition. The only difference today is the sheer extent of the technological enhancement of the real that is available to us.

The human condition is always one of interpreting too much data from too many sources through perceptual apparatus that are not only limited by genetics but by history, habit and other people. Our species is constantly creating a version of reality that is pragmatically designed for survival.
Our reality at any one time is not the only possible reality. If it is true that it is constructed (as Marxists claim) from a particular relationship to the means of production, it is also true that it is constantly being recreated by the minds of millions of persons with instinctive wants and desires that are independent of those means.

This spectacle, this unified and always growing ‘thing’, made up of objects perceived and turned into value by the perceiving (detached from any underlying reality and certainly from the analysed reality of the intellectual) is a Heraclitean flux that can never be made solid or fully understood (despite the fantasies of the AI and Big Data enthusiasts).  The Marxist theory of alienation may be true analytically but it also contains an intrinsic problem that it derives from the Judaeo-Christian cultural tradition – that is, it does not want it to be true. Implicitly the Communist society is supposed, if not to abolish it, to reduce alienation of this type and yet this alienation is precisely what makes us evolve and be creative.

Why Alienation May Be A Good Thing

It may be far more sensible to embrace the flux, identify one’s own desires and then pragmatically seek fulfillment without collapsing into madness, in other words to be functionally happy within the flux by creating islands of vital personal rather than of sclerotic collective stability. Marxism is deeply conservative, terrified of change (unless a revolutionary blood-letting to end change), and nervous of emotion, desire and instinct.

Many Leftists would stand aghast at my comment and immediately suggest that such an acceptance of these things must be intrinsically ‘fascist’. So be it ... they misunderstand because they are wired to misunderstand these things. The Situationists embraced radical change in the short term, but their grand narrative still assumed that somewhere further down the line ‘revolution’ would bring some concordance between real reality and imagined reality. In this, they were wrong.

Though we may develop as a species in a robotic or purely intellectual direction over tens of thousands of years, we are defined now by having an individual reality (embracing our desires) that is disconnected from social reality ('norms’) which, in turn, is often out of kilter with the facts of the matter in the world. To seek to align our own situation with the ‘pseudo-reality’ of society by transforming the social into something that is in accordance with our own reality is absurd, utopianism of the worst sort, the basis of Hitlerism to name but one manifestation.

Utopian Absurdity

Why? Because there are millions of such realities, all competing and without any clear common class, race, sexual or other identity that is not created by the very society that we recognize as un-real. Faced with the flux of our desires and situation in a world where imbalances of power dictate the social norms which are imposed on us, where these same norms might be counter-productive to the effective management of scientific reality (as in some faith-based cultures), the Situationists have something to tell us but not precisely what they thought they wanted to tell us.

The Spectacle is not just a matter of contemplation but one of action where we, as individuals, have considerable opportunity to transform our and other lives if we only understood the degree of our freedom within our material and power constraints (so much, so Sartre).

What is not going to happen is any lasting transformation of society that is simply derived from a manipulative cadre – the sort of activist element we noted above – where a few individuals impose their phantasy on the majority without their own participation or informed consent. In practice only education (the art of questioning) and the market (the art of choosing) can liberate enslaved minds. Situationist events and cadres, in that context, are useful only insofar as they jolt us into questioning and into considering the value of our choices to ourselves.

Ideology as False God

From this perspective and as an example, AdBusters, which ‘detournes’ commercial advertising, is extremely valuable not because it will overthrow capitalism (it won’t) but because it raises questions outside of formal schooling institutions and it allows us to ask questions about our own values. However, if AdBusters simply replaces one world-view (slavery to the market) with another (slavery to an anti-capitalist rhetoric) nothing has been achieved.

The choice must include a value-driven choice for the product or service by the individual where that choice is informed and functionally useful to them. When an ideology like feminism raises questions for a woman (or man) about their relationship and offers a choice (to accept or not accept it) as well as a means of action (to act to make it a positive and effective choice), it is doing good.

But when it dictates an agenda that precludes questioning (‘all men are predators’) or forces a choice (‘sisterhood requires such-and-such an action'), then it is as oppressive as their invented Aunt Sally ‘patriarchy’. All ideologies need to be questioned in the same way. Debord’s ‘pseudo world’ of the spectacle is thus seen as a problem whereas in fact it is also a solution. There is no possible world that cannot be a pseudo world, in effect an imaginative construct limited by material reality, because the human species is defined positively by its own intrinsic alienation.

Taking Hold of the Spectacle

Once this is understood, we can abandon our puritanical moral panic about the lack of stability within existence and see the spectacle as something that we can create incrementally in our own image to the degree that we can ensure its and our functionality. What Debord is right to point out is the dangers of a liar lying to himself but, even here, we should not go too far.

A phantasy that is functional for the person is a tolerable madness. The issue is whether it is functional and not whether it is a phantasy. There is nothing wrong with phantasy at all. The liberatory element lies in an assertion (the only concession to the universal abstract) that the rights of persons to their phantasies are all equal and that the conditions of life should not include the acceptance of an unwilling submission of (or dominance over) one of another.

The lie that the liar may be telling himself is that he is happy or content when he has repressed and suppressed his true nature. An effective situationist response would be a socialized psychotherapeutic one, a revolutionary act of multiple enablings of self-assertions against the ‘given’. The current late capitalist spectacle works quite well at this critical level – the power of the consumer (which offsets the disempowered position of the employee or family member) permits an assertion of personal desire against the desire of capitalism to desire more resources.

The Hidden Moralism of Debord

A situationist economics might even emphasise the power of withdrawal of desire or the deferral of desire as a tactical act to get more of what is desired – not unlike the sexual politics within many relationships. The Spectacle is thus not the ‘concrete inversion of life’ (the Situationist view) but life itself, or rather what happens to life once individuals (who are truly alive) start to deal with one another in a constant process of gaming and trading.

Debord would have had much fun with our current obsession with zombies. This fascination is largely a construction of commercial interests but it is almost certainly hitting a sense in the population that the ‘system’ does treat them like zombies, units of production and consumption. But this does not mean that we are zombies, only that we are aware that we might become zombies. Zombies do not know that they are zombies.

Debord also argued that ‘things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy’ but he exaggerates, sounding like a Christian moralist of the late pagan era. He has no proof for his statement because he was not 'there'. The literary evidence for the claim can be shown to be flawed and suppositious. He says that ‘once an experience is taken out of the real world, it becomes a commodity … the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience’. But there is no harm in anything becoming a commodity if the trade is still good for the desiring subject. There is certainly no reason why the spectacle should not be regarded as being as real as the ‘real’ if it is felt as real by the person.

The Real

There is no real to be had in the sense that Debord is implying. Commodified experience is not only real to all intents and purposes but ‘more real’ insofar as it is the purchased expression of the fulfillment of a desire (albeit usually partially) that would otherwise not be experienced if it was not purchased. Marxism is riddled with pseudo-Judaeo-Christian moralizing about authenticity of experience and Debord cannot escape it. Here he is again: ‘our psychic functions are altered, we get a degradation of mind and also a degradation of knowledge’. He puts this down to capitalism. I put it down to socialisation under any system.

As soon as we relate to a single other person, we are beginning to see our psychic functioning altered, our mind is ‘degraded’ (meaning limited in its imaginative options) and our knowledge ‘degraded’ (made functionally useful to the system rather than ourselves). This altering and degradation increases to the degree that we are embedded in bigger and bigger institutions.

Intellectual Arrogance

We have to recognize that this ‘degradation’ applies to all human systems (not just capitalism) and that many people actively choose such ‘degradation’ as enhancing to them (our bureaucrats, corporate men and women, the military, the churches). But it is the height of intellectual arrogance to assume that such people are somehow inferior in their choice to libertarians like Debord and myself – all we can ask is that they do not force us into their mould.

Where he has an important point to make is where he says that ‘knowledge is not used [any more] to question, analyze or resolve contradictions but to assuage reality’. The ‘any more’ is highly questionable but the statement is a true representation of most people for most of the time but whether this state of affairs can ever be changed by revolutionary action is to be doubted. What the 68-ers and most Leftists of that and earlier periods did not and could not ‘get’ (because of the scientific knowledge of the period) is that this is the human species – mostly uninterested intrinsically in questioning, analysis and resolving contradictions. It is the creature that lives rather than 'thinks through' its contradictions.


In fact, the last thing most people want to do is resolve contradictions. Contradictions are the only way they can cope with life. No revolutionary operation is going to remove the reality of and necessity for contradiction. There is no evidence that the allegedly ‘real’ experience was, in fact, ever more interesting or pleasurable or life-changing than any acquired experience through the market. To think otherwise is a moralistic myth, an ‘ought’ from a traditionalist perspective rather than an ‘is’. It is what we think that we ought to think – no more.

Contemporary technology has made this clearer. Most desires cannot be fulfilled and will never be fulfilled wholly. The reality was always that experiences of value were few and often turned sour – think of the romp in the hay that led to a lifetime being shackled to a podgy harridan. New technologies create a culture of life-enhancing vicarious pleasure that, far from making persons less able to cope with ‘reality’, lance the boil of desire and create the language for getting some simulacra of desire into private life.

These technologies allow desires to be identified and then managed. The commodification of sexuality has included Ann Summers whose very existence has permitted sex-positive discussion between couples and has created an atmosphere of desire that counters the inability to speak of pleasure – as was the case in the past.

The Spectacle as Process

How does Debord see authority in this Society of the Spectacle? As always, he follows the Marxist pattern of making authority a thing rather than a process. There is some intention in someone somewhere apparently to maintain social control and handle threats. This is absurd.

There is no controlling mind at the centre of capitalism inventing processes for social control. It is a process in itself. Social controls are intrinsic but also subject to our own engagement in personal and so social liberation. The process includes ‘recuperation’ (the interception of radical ideas, their commodification and safe incorporation) but this is not sinister or willful. It is just natural evolution. It should be regarded as a good thing.

Even attenuated once-radical ideas (like, say, the scientific reality of human racial equality) become included within the ‘spectacle’ and the whole moves forward on the basis of its functionality and facts on the ground. Intellectuals want perfection where there is no perfection to be had. Capitalism is not degrading the life of the people. The people degrade their own lives as victims of circumstances they fail to will to change. As all intellectuals (especially Marxist intellectuals) do, Debord treats the mass of the population as fools, to be enlightened by types like himself.

What We Need

The ‘people’ (that is actual persons in the world) are embedded in a process which is ‘given’ to them but which they change each and every day of their waking lives through their actions. We do not need grumpy Marxist theory. We only need a commitment to a questioning education and the freedom to make choices for ourselves – and intervention, the legitimate role of the community as collective, to ensure that no person is hobbled from making informed choices.

Under this more moderated form of the Situation, questioning and assertive persons can create ‘situations’, reconstruct their localities, choose their relationships, engage with their environments and merge playfulness, free choice and critical thought. There will be no help from a revolutionary proletariat while any ‘art’ that thinks it will transform the conditions of humanity is living in a phantasy all of its own. It is the other way around. The transformation of society will enable an art that can exist for its own sake and is not burdened by theory or politics. Rather Wilde than Marx …

The aim of the Situationist International was much the same as mine – a world of luxury, happiness and freedom but allowing education and the market (a proper market and not socialism for corporations) to thrive is almost certainly more likely to produce these goods over the long term than reliance on a revolutionary proletariat and a bunch of artists.